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The Hobbit Summer

September 28, 2011

THE HOBBIT SUMMER

Then I married a man who was a birder and a camper and had a daughter! What a thrilling new life I was to have. It began with a camping trip out west that came to be known as “The Hobbit Summer”, since that was our book of choice to read along the way, and since we would be visiting several caverns during our journey. We started the trip by visiting Florida Caverns State Park, Jenny’s first cave. She was also starting her first “Life List” of birds – birds she had never seen before – and she spent lots of time looking new birds up in her field guide and making notes – Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Barn Swallows, Loggerhead Shrikes, Common Nighthawks and Black-tailed Jackrabbits. Yes, we counted mammals, too!

When we got to Austin, Texas, we spent a day with a local birder (now well-known bird photographer, writer, and guide Greg Lasley) who kindly took us “under his wing” and helped us find two special lifers – Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. He even sold us his brand new copy of Jim Lane’s “Birder’s Guide to Arizona”, since the ABA office in Austin was closed, and he assured us he could buy another. Greg was a great guy and we were lucky to have spent time with him. He even showed Jenny how to put a fence lizard to sleep by putting it on its back in her hand and rubbing its tummy! Good birding information to have! Then she got to see her first Roadrunner! What a thrill. Check out his website http://www.greglasley.net/

We continued on through the Texas Hill County and camped the first of many nights under zillions of stars. My camping experience had consisted of always being in a camper, a trail shelter, or a tent, and now suddenly, here I was with a guy who thought if the night was clear and you could see the stars – why not sleep out under them so you could go to sleep watching them! The caveat was – no bugs and no rain. And Jenny was so happy to be having birding adventures, she didn’t care where she slept. What a family!

We made our way to Davis Mountains State Park, west of Ft. Stockton, seeing Lesser Goldfinches and Lark Sparrows. Having crossed the Pecos River, being in the mountains and seeing the sunset against the beautiful hills assured us that we really were “Out West”. We went to sleep that night with Cassin’s Kingbirds calling.

The next day was my birthday and we packed up and headed for the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park, both east of El Paso. In the mountains we saw Montezuma Quail (then called Harlequin Quail) and our first Mule Deer of the trip. This whole area was under an ocean at one time and the caverns are composed of old limestone that had been part of that reef. One special bird of that area is Cave Swallows that swoop and dive in and out of the cave during the day. A spectacular sight of the caverns is the fly-out at dusk of thousands of Mexican free-tail bats that have used the caves for thousands of years.

I recently did some research and learned that since 1996, they have recorded the numbers of bats roosting in the cave by taking infrared photos of them. The photos show sleeping bats as dark patches; then they estimate the amount of ceiling that’s covered by the dark patches and multiply it with an estimated number of bats per square foot. Recent numbers show that about 400,000 bats enter and leave the cave daily. After exploring the immense caverns for several hours, eating my birthday lunch 750 feet underground, and watching the evening exit of the bats out of that huge hole in the ground, we took a “wildlife auto drive” on a dirt road through the desert habitat that led us out of the park and to the highway. We had a spotlight with us just in case we found any wildlife on our night drives, and along the way we were thrilled to find a Great Horned Owl sitting on a perch and a Ring-tailed Cat – another new mammal for our list!

Breakfast the next morning was at the Nickel Creek Café, in the middle of nowhere, owned and operated by a man who said he was born and raised in the Guadalupe Mountains. We ate our first breakfast burritos! I wonder if that café is still there. [According to the Texas State Historical Association, as of 2005, the community of Nickel Creek “had only two residents, who operated the Nickel Creek Café in an old gas station.”]

We were still working our way west to southeast Arizona, and passing through New Mexico we drove down to Columbus, a tiny border town where in 1916 some of Pancho Villa’s soldiers made the first (and last) armed invasion of the continental U. S. since the War of 1812. We went across the border and ate a delicious Mexican dinner, then spent the night at Pancho Villa State Park, where because of a mosquito problem, we spent our first night in our tent. To compensate – we enjoyed the Roadrunners and Cactus Wrens in the campground. We were also starting to see Pronghorn Antelopes along the roadsides.
To be continued.

NOTE: I write a monthly column about birds for the Palm Beach Post. If you’d like to read some of them, go to palmbeachpost.com and insert “Ann Yeend Weinrich” in the search box.

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